German Shepherds Gryf and Blitz traveled a long way to join the Edina K-9 Unit. Born from breeders in Poland and Slovakia respectively, both dogs then crossed the Atlantic to train in patrol work and narcotics detection in order to finally become fully-trained police dogs. I sat down with Officer Mike Bengtson to discuss the K-9 unit, and of course, his partner Gryf.
When an officer is selected to join the K-9 unit, they are paired with the young dog that will one day be their partner. These dogs are known as ‘green dogs’ and don’t yet know any commands or even their names. “They have no training whatsoever when they come here from Europe,” says Mike. These green dogs are then enrolled in a rigorous 16 week training program designed to teach them all they need to know to be part of the K-9 unit as well as build a bond between dog and officer. For Mike and Gryf, this training took place at the St. Paul Police K-9 School.
This program starts with a food-based reward system where the dogs are trained at feeding times with officers feeding them by hand when they successfully perform commands. This positive reinforcement is key to the training program as well as bonding the dog to officer. Eventually, however, this food-based reward system is replaced with a ball reward and, “Of course everything goes haywire because dogs love toys and balls. It kind of turns it into a clown show for a while. But that’s what Gryf lives for is his toys,” says Mike.
But even at the end of that program, the dogs aren’t done training. Every year after that, dogs must be re-certified in their respective specialized trainings. K9’s Gryf and Blitz are certified by the United States Police Canine Association in both patrol work as well as narcotics detection. Mike and Gryf are constantly training to maintain that level of expertise: “It’s a lot of work, constantly training even on days off […] because in my mind you get out what you put into the program. I want to have this program be successful at the end of the day when it comes down to it, Gryf could potentially save someone’s life. I want to make sure he is the best,” says Mike.
The breed of dogs used for K-9 Units varies program to program, but Edina only uses male German Shepherds from specific working dog bloodlines dating back to World War II. “They’re pretty level-headed dogs and that’s what we want for the department and the community as well. They aren’t just straight big-bad-police-canines. We want social personalities,” says Mike. That social aspect of K-9 Units is crucial to community outreach. A key part of the K-9 unit’s job is to be approachable by the public: “Anyone from kids to adults can go up and pet him and get some love from him,” says Mike.
K-9 Units serve a variety of purposes. Gryf, like all Edina K-9 dogs, is trained in patrol work, narcotics detection and apprehension. Patrol work consists of searching for missing people and evidence as well as following scent trails and tracking. “We primarily use the dogs for their nose, which are estimated to be about 10,000-100,000 times better than ours,” says Mike. In fact, various K-9 units have many uses of their dogs because of their powerful sense of smell. The Minnesota DNR uses a similar unit trained to smell and detect invasive zebra mussels that appear in Minnesota lakes and rivers.
Through the intensive 16 week program, the constant training, and living and working together, the bond between officer and dog is designed to be strong: “I spend more time with Gryf than I do my wife. He’s with me at work, he’s with me at home, he’s lying on his bed right next to mine when I’m sleeping,” says Mike. And even after the dogs retire, they often remain with their officers and transition into a house pet role. Mike’s previous dog Ike (yes, it was the Mike and Ike team, like the candy) was part of the K-9 Unit before developing Epilepsy and having to retire. Now, “he’s literally just a house dog and living the dream,” says Mike. From finding missing people to keeping them safe, K-9 Units continue to be an important part of policework and the community.